Studies in American Indian Literatures 17.4 (2005) 27-78
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Widening the Circle
Collaborative Reading with Louis Owens's Wolfsong
The scholastic emphasis on cultural pluralism in recent decades has coincided with a technological revolution, and the quincentennial discovery of Columbus by American Indians has coincided with the evolution of the Internet. The Internet has served to close the distance between people, ironically by widening the circle. It is a forum that enables those with Internet access to engage ideas, symbols, and unique voices from around the world. Cyberspace is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, reducing communication barriers created by distances in space. This phenomenon is eminently important to teachers, especially teachers of literature. In an era when scholars are searching for better ways to understand authors from diverse backgrounds, the Internet creates the capacity for people in a classroom to interface, sometimes directly, with the writers they study.
For writers and readers of American Indian literatures, the digital revolution has often been engaged as a means of storing information. Native language revitalization programs across the continent are using computers in classrooms, and some tribes even provide Internet surfers with the ability to download phrases and fonts from Indigenous languages. Many literary and scholarly journals publish original works on their Web sites, often with links to tribal resources or authors' Web pages. The Internet Public Library offers an excellent catalog of information on hundreds of Indigenous writers. And despite the accurate accusation that the Internet exploits credit consumerism, Sherman Alexie fans who did not get to see The Business of [End Page 27] Fancydancing in theaters will surely take solace in the fact that the DVD can be purchased online.
But what new role can the cyberworld play in the classroom? By using our project as a sort of model, teachers can engage the Internet as a means of reducing the discursive distance between themselves, students, and the writers studied during class. If a classroom has a computer with Internet access as well as an audio/video projector, the entire class can visit authors' Web sites, which often have links to recent interviews. Some interviews in audio format are accessible through IPL, NPR, PBS, the BBC, and other resources, enabling teachers to project an interview with an author during class time.1 The dynamic of teachers and students both listening while the author discusses his or her work can dramatically reduce the distance between writers and readers through a humanizing process. The authors become speakers in a larger dialogue, dynamic participants in an old conversation who bounce ideas off those they speak to, participants in a live discussion rather than static (or stoic) imaginings bound to exteriorly imposed definitions.
Our project, based on experiences in a classroom at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, revolves around an email conversation between our students and Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish writer Louis Owens. The class was a sophomore-level Introduction to American Indian Literatures class. We were team teaching the course. The texts assigned included an anthology, several films, and one novel—Owens's 1991 Wolfsong.2
We chose Wolfsong for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the novel is set in the nearby North Cascades, about fifty miles from the Western Washington University campus. We anticipated that its geographical significance would attract the students and inspire our initial discussions of the book. Owens graciously agreed to answer questions generated by our students in response to the novel, questions transmitted from Washington to California and back via email. Toward the end of the course, students composed three- to five-page critical essays based on Wolfsong, engaging many issues that the author addressed directly, resulting in a unique crossroads of inquiry.
Our project involved many stages. First, both instructors met several [End Page 28] times prior to the beginning of the course.3 We discussed the debates over the need for cultural sensitivity when teaching texts by Native writers (Dorris, Silko, Hobson). We also addressed the issue of "re-colonizing" the texts; some critics...